Dr Paul Huang leads the Protein Networks Team at the Institute of Cancer Research, London and is investigating the communication networks buzzing inside, between and around cancer cells.
With Breast Cancer Now funding, his team are finding ways to target the hubs of molecular communication in breast cancer, and also to predict which cases of ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) will progress to invasive breast cancer.
We met with Dr Huang in his office, one floor up from the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at the Institute of Cancer Research, to talk about his research and life as a scientist.
What inspired you to get into cancer research?
I’ve always had a natural affinity for biology – for me it was always the easiest of the three sciences that I tackled as a kid. In particular, I was very intrigued by the analytical aspects of science – how we can use analytical tools to ‘measure’ biology – that really lead me into cancer research.
What are you and your team working on?
The two main areas we work on in my team are firstly trying to understand the extracellular matrix, the ‘glue’ surrounding the breast cancer, and how various components outside the tumour influence the aggressiveness and growth of the tumour.
The flipside of that is that we’re trying to understand what’s happening inside the tumour, what we call the communication or signalling machinery in the cells, and how such communication may go haywire. When this happens it means tumour cells get told to grow quickly and ignore various normal processes – for example they start migrating instead of staying still in the breast. So we’re trying to understand the whole picture of the communication inside, outside, and between cells.
What’s the biggest challenge in tackling breast cancer and stopping deaths?
The main cause of death in breast cancer is when the cancer spreads to other parts of the body. There’s various fronts on which people are trying to tackle this, either looking at the process of breast cancer spread itself, or whether we can detect breast cancer much earlier and so treat earlier, and more effectively, with multiple drugs.
Having this approach, with many drugs lined up so you always have something to fall back on when one stops working, could eventually mean we treat breast cancer more like a chronic disease – having parallels with diabetes where you’re managing the disease throughout someone’s life. Part of this school of thought also relies on detecting recurrences earlier using new technologies other than imaging.
Both processes are as important as each other to focus on – understanding breast cancer spread and the early detection of cancer and recurrences.
What do you feel is key in making progress against breast cancer?
I’m a firm believer of being able to work in multidisciplinary teams that range from ‘basic’ science to ‘translational’ work and all the way to the clinic. I did my early training in an environment where engineers spoke with clinicians who spoke with basic scientists and we all worked together. For me, that team work has always sparked new ideas and new innovation to tackle cancer.
So the thing that I think will provide a step change in cancer research is the continued development of large research groups that communicate across different scientific disciplines. There are already models of this across the UK and US, and the Breast Cancer Now Research Centre is one example – we are almost all moving in this direction in research and we need to keep that going to really answer the big questions.
What or who has shaped your career the most?
Something that’s really helped my career, and which I try to pass on, is mentorship and training. In graduate school I worked with a relatively young professor who had just come from industry and had a different way of thinking about science – he really helped to shape my own approach.
When I first came to the Institute of Cancer Research, my head of department was the eminent cell biologist Professor Chris Marshall, who has sadly since passed away. He really taught me how you run a lab team, the administrative and practical things, and I continue to be grateful to him for that.
The reality of science is that it feels like there’s a 98% failure rate in your experiments, so having mentors and colleagues who provide support through this is really important. I also try to go to patient events – talking to people affected by cancer has really shaped the way I deal with my science now.
What has felt like your biggest achievement as a scientist?
On the science side, I’ve been part of teams which have identified various combinations of drugs that work in different cancer types and some are now in clinical trials. And although I think many scientists would go back to particular discoveries, for me, my biggest achievements are the successes of the people I’ve helped train – people who have come through my lab have gone on to contribute to the scientific endeavour and formed their own labs to ask new questions. This is a big thing for me – the propagation of the next generation.
Learn more about Dr Paul Huang’s research: